The Limits Of Niceness
September 15, 2011, 02:10 PM
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Paul Tough writes in the NYT Magazine about visits to a KIPP charter school in the South Bronx and to a $38,000 per year private school, Riverdale, in the North Bronx. Riverdale is exploring changing its character education program from one emphasizing not hurting other people's feelings to being personally resilient:

After a few small adjustments (Levin and Randolph opted to drop love in favor of curiosity), they settled on a final list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. ... 
... Levin started working to turn it into a specific, concise assessment that he could hand out to students and parents at KIPP’s New York City schools twice a year: the first-ever character report card. 
Back at Riverdale, though, the idea of a character report card made [Principal] Randolph nervous. “I have a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” he explained to me one afternoon. “With my school’s specific population, at least, as soon as you set up something like a report card, you’re going to have a bunch of people doing test prep for it. I don’t want to come up with a metric around character that could then be gamed. I would hate it if that’s where we ended up.”
Gaming the SAT has taken decades because, generally speaking, if you can outsmart an IQ test, you are probably pretty smart anyway. But gaming a character test if you are smart sounds pretty easy. Think about how Dr. Ahmad Chalabi gamed the neocons into thinking he was the new George Washington. (The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory gets around this through mind-melting repetition of questions.)
As I spent time at Riverdale last year, it became apparent to me that the debate over character at the school wasn’t just about how best to evaluate and improve students’ character. It went deeper, to the question of what “character” really meant. When Randolph arrived at Riverdale, the school already had in place a character-education program, of a sort. Called CARE, for Children Aware of Riverdale Ethics, the program was adopted in 1989 in the lower school, which at Riverdale means prekindergarten through fifth grade. It is a blueprint for niceness, mandating that students “Treat everyone with respect” and “Be aware of other people’s feelings and find ways to help those whose feelings have been hurt.” Posters in the hallway remind students of the virtues related to CARE (“Practice Good Manners . . . Avoid Gossiping . . . Help Others”). In the lower school, many teachers describe it as a proud and essential part of what makes Riverdale the school that it is.  ...
In fact, though, the character-strength approach of Seligman and Peterson isn’t an expansion of programs like CARE; if anything, it is a repudiation of them. In 2008, a national organization called the Character Education Partnership published a paper that divided character education into two categories: programs that develop “moral character,” which embodies ethical values like fairness, generosity and integrity; and those that address “performance character,” which includes values like effort, diligence and perseverance. The CARE program falls firmly on the “moral character” side of the divide, while the seven strengths that Randolph and Levin have chosen for their schools lean much more heavily toward performance character: while they do have a moral component, strengths like zest, optimism, social intelligence and curiosity aren’t particularly heroic; they make you think of Steve Jobs or Bill Clinton more than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi. 


That Chinese sculptor must not have gotten the memo about Dr. King being the embodiment of niceness, instead sculpting him for the National Mall as a "scowling behemoth," as a commenter noted.

Cohen’s vision of character is much closer to “moral character” than “performance character,” and so far, that vision remains the dominant one at Riverdale. When I spent a day at the school in March, sitting in on a variety of classes and meetings, messages about behavior and values permeated the day, but those messages stayed almost entirely in the moral dimension. It was a hectic day at the middle school — it was pajama day, plus there was a morning assembly, and then on top of that, the kids in French class who were going on the two-week trip to Bordeaux for spring break had to leave early in order to make their overnight flight to Paris. The topic for the assembly was heroes, and a half-dozen students stood up in front of their classmates — about 350 kids, in all — and each made a brief presentation about a particular hero he or she had chosen: Ruby Nell Bridges, the African-American girl who was part of the first group to integrate the schools in New Orleans in 1960; Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation helped spark the recent revolt in that country; the actor and activist Paul Robeson. 
In the assembly, in classes and in conversations with different students, I heard a lot of talk about values and ethics, and the values that were emphasized tended to be social values: inclusion, tolerance, diversity. (I heard a lot more about black history at Riverdale than I did at the KIPP schools I visited.) One eighth-grade girl I asked about character said that for her and her friends, the biggest issue was inclusion — who was invited to whose bat mitzvah; who was being shunned on Facebook. Character, as far as I could tell, was being defined at Riverdale mostly in terms of helping other people — or at least not hurting their feelings.
You'll notice how the current educational system tends to indoctrinate innocent young people into a series of equations that are never quite spelled out: moral goodness = niceness = conformity = mindless diversity worship = hatred of heretics.
I am widely considered to be an extremely not nice person because I don't believe that public intellectual discourse should be hamstrung by those virtues appropriate for an eighth grader approaching her bat mitzvah. I'm not in eighth grade anymore. 
Now, in person, as those few of my readers who have met me can attest, I am the perpetual extremely nice eighth grader. But, I don't really meet with people much in person anymore because it seems like a waste of everybody's time. I have a goal —helping my fellow citizens understand better how the world works—and I have a talent—demolishing cant. My personal niceness tends to get in the way of my helping my country.